Deterrence debates and defence

The perceived failure of deterrence, despite the possession of nuclear weapons by India, could lead to greater instability in Indo-Pak bilateral relations should there be another crisis with Pakistan  

Updated - May 21, 2016 12:29 pm IST

Published - April 21, 2014 12:30 am IST

India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) is scheduled to conduct a ballistic missile interceptor test later this month which forms part of a series of tests to develop and deploy a limited Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) shield in the country, a project that has been in steady development since the mid-1990s. BMD pessimists — I used to be one myself — have traditionally argued that notwithstanding the fact that BMD is neither foolproof nor cheap, induction of such systems can be deeply destabilising between nuclear-armed adversaries. However, the instability argument assumes the existence of a Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD)-induced textbook deterrence dyad such as the U.S.-USSR nuclear rivalry of the Cold War vintage. The deterrence stability of the Cold War years, premised on the existence of rational, unitary actors, does not exist in nuclear South Asia and hence to believe that mutual vulnerability increases stability is dangerous. No matter how many nuclear warheads India makes and how often it reviews its doctrinal postures, New Delhi’s deterrence dilemmas are likely to persist.

India can, to a great extent, address these dilemmas by mainstreaming and articulating the strategic objectives of its BMD programme which, at the moment, does not form part of the country’s politically articulated nuclear strategy.

India’s deterrence dilemmas

The deterrence effect of nuclear weapons is yet to mature in South Asia. More so, the South Asian nuclear contest is severely complicated by the presence of non-state actors and their ability to draw states into armed conflicts. These and other related issues have been posing multiple deterrence dilemmas for India.

First of all, there are fears in India about the potential implications of a situation wherein Pakistan-based non-state actors gain control of Pakistan’s nuclear assets. There is also speculation about the repercussions of rogue elements in the Pakistani armed forces engaging in unauthorised nuclear activities. It could be an unauthorised nuclear strike against India or similar to what the former American Ambassador to Pakistan, Anne Patterson argued: “Our major concern is not having an Islamic militant steal an entire weapon but rather the chance someone working in GoP [Government of Pakistan] facilities could gradually smuggle enough material out to eventually make a weapon.” Besides, there could also be genuinely accidental launches of nuclear weapons.

The political angle

India’s failure to respond to Pakistani aggression — state sponsored, non-state actor attack, non-state sponsored, non-state actor attack, or attack by rogue elements from within establishment — has domestic political costs as well. The Indian government is widely criticised for not responding to Pakistan adequately, not being able to see through Pakistan’s ploy of using non-state actors and not showing enough resolve, among other aspects. This perceived failure of deterrence, despite the possession of nuclear weapons by India, could lead to greater instability in India-Pakistan bilateral relations should there be another crisis with Pakistan, especially if New Delhi has a right-wing government in power.

Despite the animated debate in India on the desirability of withdrawing the no first use (NFU) pledge, any government in New Delhi is likely to think twice before doing so since its NFU pledge is key to its status of a “responsible nuclear power” which in turn has been aiding India’s ongoing integration into the global nuclear order. Any move from the Indian side to renege on the NFU pledge or conduct a thermonuclear test to showcase its deterrent capability will only alienate the international community. Hence, New Delhi finds itself in a self-imposed normative bind wherein it is unable to doctrinally or materially pursue strategies to respond to Pakistani acts or behaviour which it thinks has undermined its deterrence capability.

There have also been concerns about the robustness of the Indian nuclear deterrent for a variety of doctrinal and material reasons. As Admiral Raja Menon wrote in The Hindu (“A mismatch of nuclear doctrines,” January 22, 2014), there are a number of “structural and operational weaknesses in the Indian nuclear arsenal.” For one, experts have questioned the use of “massive retaliation” in the Indian doctrine which is not a credible enough threat to deter Pakistani conventional or sub-conventional aggression. The other argument about the credibility of India’s nuclear deterrence is the criticism that its command and control (C&C) structures are not yet sophisticated enough. Another related concern is regarding the credibility of India’s declared nuclear capability. For instance, India claimed after the 1998 tests that its thermonuclear test was a success. However, this claim has been authoritatively challenged making the country’s official claims concerning nuclear weapons look weaker. Then, there are also fears about the material performance failures of the Indian nuclear arsenal.

Doctrinal and material credibility about a state’s nuclear weapons lie at the heart of the deterrence effect that it seeks to derive from its weapons. If so, there are a number of credibility issues attached to India’s nuclear deterrent which it should address if it wishes to make its deterrent work. Merely doing away with NFU or conducting another round of tests cannot take care of these fundamental deterrence dilemmas that India faces today.

What, therefore, needs to be done urgently is a strategic review of the country’s nuclear doctrine to make it more credible. But even more importantly, most of the deterrence dilemmas (mentioned earlier) that the country faces can be resolved by introducing enhanced strategic depth, political commitment and a sense of purpose into India’s ongoing BMD programme.

Demonstrating that one can defend oneself strengthens deterrence. If Pakistan believes that it can take out New Delhi and with it a considerable amount of the latter’s C&C systems and political leadership in a first strike, such a belief will weaken the deterrence stability in the region. On the other hand, if the Indian political leadership and its nuclear C&C can be made reasonably invulnerable from a decapitation strike, then deterrence stability increases considerably.

In this context, a limited BMD system increases deterrence by denial. The deterrence effect of BMD is not only applicable between rational state actors but also when non-state (rational or irrational) actors target state actors. For instance, if Pakistan-based non-state actors or rogue elements from the Pakistani armed forces target India with nuclear weapons, New Delhi — considering that such an attack is most likely to be very limited — will be able to properly comprehend and analyse the situation before contemplating an appropriate response. This is only possible if the political decision-making mechanisms and nuclear C&C in New Delhi survive such an attack.

More importantly, a limited BMD can also deter a state with revisionist intentions that would want to carry out a bolt-from-the-blue-strike. In other words, if generating dissuasion in the mind of the aggressor is central to nuclear deterrence, a limited BMD shield could potentially achieve that in the South Asian context.

The demands from within Indian strategic/political circles to give up on NFU and conduct another round of thermonuclear tests have one thing in common: the desire to make the Indian deterrent more credible. While it may be a fair demand in itself, New Delhi may not be able to do that precisely due to various normative constraints. A limited BMD is perhaps one way of positively responding to these demands without crossing the normative redlines. Not only are BMD developments in the country unlikely to face any normative opposition from the international community such as the United States and its NATO allies, they may indeed be willing to collaborate with India on its BMD programme.

Managing reputational impact

A limited BMD capability aimed at providing area defence to the national capital and C&C structures could be showcased as demonstrating the country’s willingness and readiness to face any eventuality. The argument then would be that since the country is only going in for a limited BMD (as opposed to going in for a National Missile Defence system which would have given it invulnerability), if it ever becomes a success, it does not want to secure itself completely and then engage in a first strike. In other words, a limited BMD can reinforce India’s NFU posture as well as make it more credible. Those in India who critique the Indian NFU posture as an inadequate response to Pakistan can be assuaged by the argument that a limited BMD will provide the country with the necessary wherewithal to retaliate in all certainty thereby increasing its deterrence credibility.

Another potential implication of a limited BMD in India would be the continuation of the country’s de-mated and de-alerted nuclear posture. Even as New Delhi remains steadfast in its commitment to continuing its de-mated and de-alerted posture, critiques have questioned the wisdom behind it. Such concerns can also be addressed by a limited BMD which provides an assured capability for retaliation thereby strengthening deterrence.

Therefore, those demanding the withdrawal of NFU should consider the potential of a limited BMD system in strengthening India’s deterrence rather than advocating the adoption of offensive doctrines and technologies.

(Happymon Jacob teaches at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.)

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.